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Boeing aims for space tours by 2015

The Boeing Co. and Virginia-based Space Adventures today unveiled the outlines of their deal to market passenger seats on orbital spaceships. The deal, which was telegraphed in advance last week, would broaden Space Adventures' clientele from millionaire "citizen explorers" to non-governmental agencies and corporations, and even federal agencies other than NASA.

Boeing's vice president and general manager for space exploration, Brewster Shaw, said the deal was in line with his company's heritage. "One of our stated goals in our division is to become the Boeing commercial aircraft of human space commerce," he told journalists during a teleconference conducted from Boeing's offices in Arlington, Va.

The deal calls for flying paying passengers alongside NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and eventually other, as-yet-unspecified destinations as well. But neither Boeing nor Space Adventures were ready to answer the bottom-line question: How much will a ticket cost? The best they could say was that the price would be competitive with the cost of a ride on a station-bound Russian Soyuz craft, which is currently pegged at $40 million a seat.

Boeing's commercial space capsule, known as the CST-100, is expected to be operational by 2015. The craft's main purpose will be to service the space station after the space shuttle fleet is retired. Boeing expects there to be open seats on the CST-100 space taxis — which should be able to seat seven, albeit under tighter conditions than those that exist on the shuttle. Space Adventures will be given the task of marketing those extra seats to non-NASA customers once the capsule comes online.

In the past, Space Adventures has arranged with the Russians to fly seven millionaires to the space station — most recently, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte, almost a year ago. The price tag for such flights has been escalating, from an initial ballpark figure of $20 million to Laliberte's $40 million fare. But with the expansion of the station's capacity and the phase-out of the shuttles, NASA needs more seats for its own astronauts. The result is that the supply of seats available for paying passengers on Russia's Soyuz craft has dried up, at least for the next couple of years.

The deal with Boeing provides Space Adventures with another potential supplier, which will provide more competition in the orbital transport market. If the Russians have seats available to sell in the years ahead, there'll be competitive pressure to keep the price low. And if you have any hope of going into outer space yourself, competition is a good thing: That's the only way to bring the cost of a trip to orbit not only within the budget of a millionaire, but within the budget of less welll-heeled travelers as well.

Competition in the spaceflight market
During today's teleconference, executives from Boeing as well as Space Adventures said it was too early to talk about pricing.

"Certainly a lot of that comes from the launch vehicle choice," said Eric Anderson, Space Adventures' chairman. "There are a lot of other factors that play into it, including what the destination is, what the experience is. We'll see. I think it's definitely fair to say that it will be competitive with what's out there, and I just think we'll have to leave it at that for now."

Another source of competition could be Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace, which has already partnered with Boeing and aims to launch commercial space stations starting in 2014 or 2015. That would provide an alternate destination for space travelers and researchers. Anderson said his company had no arrangement with Bigelow but added that he would "love to work" with the company. He also hinted that Space Adventures might market passenger seats for other space destinations but declined to be more specific.

"The price, when it's in the right range, should be less emphasized than things like the safety and the reliability of the team providing the experience," Anderson said. "Other factors turn out to be a lot more important at this stage of the game."

NASA paying out $18 million ... and more to come?
Boeing is one of several companies that is receiving money from NASA for the development of orbital space systems. So far, NASA has committed $18 million to the project, and about two-thirds of that money has been paid out, Elbon said. Boeing has built a structural test article for the CST-100 and has begun a variety of tests.

The current plan calls for the space taxis to be launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida — perhaps atop the United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 or Delta 4, or SpaceX's Falcon 9. When they head back to Earth from the space station, the airbag-cushioned taxis would land at White Sands in New Mexico, Edwards Air Force Base in California or some other similarly out-of-the-way location. Boeing's specifications call for each taxi to be used at least 10 times, with a turnaround time of 6 months between flights, Elbon said.

Elbon said NASA's continued financial support is an essential piece of Boeing's business plan. "We wouldn't be able to close the business case" if NASA discontinued its funding, he said. The 2015 start of operations is based on the assumption that funding would continue at a tempo that matched the projected development schedule.

He said Boeing has the equivalent of 80 to 100 full-time employees working on the project.

"We are hopeful that Congress puts a budget in place that will allow a follow-on Space Act Agreement to pick up as early as Nov. 1, so that we can maintain the team that we have and keep progress on schedule," Elbon told me. "The dates that I gave you are a function of that happening. If that doesn't happen — if there's a continuing resolution, for example, that doesn't enable commercial crew [development] to continue — that will create a gap in our development program."

The deal is also based on the assumption that Boeing will actually end up providing crew transport services to NASA in the post-shuttle era, which is not a foregone conclusion.

Despite that uncertainty, Anderson doesn't intend to wait until 2015 to start selling seats.

"Regarding when Space Adventures is able to begin marketing seats under the agreement, the answer is now," he told me, "with the caveat that marketing initially really involves discussions with serious parties and entities. We need to flesh out things like pricing and schedule. And obviously we are awaiting clarity with regard to the level of commercial crew funding."

As it happens, a fight is brewing on Capitol Hill over NASA funding: The House version of an authorization bill would allocate less money than the Senate version for space commercialization — and if an agreement isn't reached within the next few weeks, Boeing and other spaceship developers may be left hanging in legislative limbo.

Elbon was asked whether today's deal was timed to influence Congress. "It wasn't a conscious effort to announce this week," he replied, "although maybe it'll turn out to be a fortuitious situation."

I'd love to hear what you have to say about the situation for future spaceflight, as it's shaping up for next month as well as for 2015 and beyond. Feel free to leave your comments below. For the record, here's the full news release, which you can also find on Boeing's website:

"The Boeing Company [NYSE: BA] and Space Adventures, Ltd. have established a memorandum of agreement regarding the marketing of anticipated transportation services to destinations in low Earth orbit (LEO) on Boeing commercial crew spacecraft.

"Under this agreement, Space Adventures will market passenger seats on commercial flights aboard the Boeing Crew Space Transportation-100 (CST-100) spacecraft to LEO. Potential customers for excess seating capacity include private individuals, companies, non-governmental organizations, and U.S. federal agencies other than NASA. Boeing plans to use the CST-100 to provide crew transportation to the International Space Station (ISS) and future commercial LEO platforms.

"'By combining our talents, we can better offer safe, affordable transportation to commercial spaceflight customers,' said Brewster Shaw, vice president and general manager of Boeing's Space Exploration division. 'To date, all commercial flights for private spaceflight participants to the ISS have been contracted by Space Adventures. If NASA and the international partners continue to accommodate commercial spaceflight participants on ISS, this agreement will be in concert with the NASA administrator's stated intent to promote space commerce in low Earth orbit.'

"Boeing and Space Adventures have not yet set a price per seat for spaceflight participants, but will do so when full-scale development is under way. Boeing continues to advance its design for the CST-100 spacecraft under NASA's Commercial Crew Development Space Act Agreement. The spacecraft, which can carry seven people, will be able to fly on multiple launch vehicles and is expected to be operational by 2015.

"'We are excited about the potential to offer flights on Boeing's spacecraft,' said Eric Anderson, co-founder and chairman of Space Adventures. 'With our customer experience and Boeing's heritage in human spaceflight, our goal is not only to benefit the individuals who fly to space, but also to help make the resources of space available to the commercial sector by bringing the value from space back to Earth.'

"Space Adventures has successfully contracted and flown seven spaceflight participants on eight missions to the International Space Station.

"Space Adventures, headquartered in Vienna, Va., is the only company that provides orbital spaceflight opportunities to the world marketplace. The company offers a spectrum of programming that ranges from terrestrial weightless flights to orbital missions, flights to the edge of space, and a historic return to the Moon. Space Adventures' clients have spent over 2,000 hours in space, traveling over 35 million miles.

"A unit of The Boeing Company, Boeing Defense, Space & Security is one of the world's largest defense, space and security businesses specializing in innovative and capabilities-driven customer solutions, and the world's largest and most versatile manufacturer of military aircraft. Headquartered in St. Louis, Boeing Defense, Space & Security is a $34 billion business with 68,000 employees worldwide."


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